The scenes of Haitian boat people scrambling ashore in Florida 12 days ago recalls the campaign pledge of then-candidate Bill Clinton in the face of similar events in 1992 to stop the influx of Haitian boat people to the shores of the United States.
Clinton recanted after he was elected, committing his administration instead to restoring democracy and bringing about the return of exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide as an antidote.
Sadly, the Clinton administration failed. As the latest arrival on the beach at Miami demonstrated, Haitians are still fleeing their impoverished island, where democracy simply does not exist.
Aristide, who was restored on the back of 21,000 U.S. troops, has failed to improve the lot of most Haitians despite extensive foreign assistance. Instead, he has used U.S. support to impose a repressive regime that bears a strong resemblance to that of Papa Doc Duvalier, the former dictator of Haiti.
How did this happen? And what relevance does it have to the Bush administration's obsession with Iraq? The Bush administration talks about "regime change" in Iraq. Iraq is different from Haiti in one very important respect: Even after a decade of sanctions, the Iraqi people are better off economically than the Haitians, who are the poorest in the Western Hemisphere.
But there are lessons for the Bush administration to learn from the Clinton administration's failure in Haiti, which also started out from the premise that regime change would bring positive results.
The incoming Clinton administration in 1993 thought Haiti provided an opportunity for a quick foreign policy victory: restoring constitutional government and, through foreign assistance, creating incentives for Haiti to prosper. Washington could ride the crest of international condemnation of the overthrow of President Aristide. The new democracies in the Western Hemisphere were particularly fearful that the military coup that toppled Aristide after he was elected could whet the ambition of the military in their countries. So the United States joined a combined Organization of American States/U.N. negotiating team, quickly becoming the leading partner.
Then Haitian reality muddied the waters.
The strategy of the international negotiations was to force Haiti's military leadership through sanctions and diplomatic pressure to cede power to a constitutional government and permit the return of Aristide as president. Aristide had a different objective: He wanted to return unfettered by the constraints imposed on the presidency by the Haitian Constitution of 1987, which established a parliamentary democracy with executive authority divided between a president and prime minister.
So, as the international negotiating struggled to reach its objective, Aristide and his supporters played the role of obstructionists.
Nonetheless, in summer 1993, an accord was signed in New York by Haitian military leader Raul Cedras and Aristide setting a framework for a return of constitutional government and a date for Aristide's return to Haiti.
U.S. drawn in
One would have expected that an exiled president living in Washington to have been exultant and would have made every effort to ensure that the agreement succeeded. Not so. Instead, Aristide was obdurate, and his supporters obstructed the implementation of the agreement, giving the military leaders who stood to lose their power an open opportunity to drag their feet, too.
Aristide's attention was elsewhere. He drew on the frozen Haitian accounts in the United States made available to him to build a bloc of support in the U.S. Congress, in Hollywood and among Haitian communities in the United States to lobby the Clinton administration to support his option of U.S. military intervention.
The breakpoint came in spring 1994. Frustrated with the failure of both sides to fulfill their obligations, the international negotiators decided to increase pressure on the Haitian military through stronger sanctions and to press Aristide to reach an accord with parliamentary leaders tired of the political stalemate and deteriorating economic conditions in Haiti.
Aristide balked. He refused to deal seriously with a delegation of parliamentarians who came to Washington to forge a deal. Instead, he attacked the Clinton administration for its support of the parliamentarian's initiative.
At that crucial juncture, political theater took over: Congressmen chained themselves to the gates of the White House, Hollywood celebrities took full-page ads in the newspapers and a black activist announced a hunger strike to press the administration to change its policy.
To its shame, the Clinton administration caved. It abandoned its negotiating leadership forged with the OAS/U.N. team and made a quiet deal with Aristide which, in effect, ceded policy control to Aristide in return for an end to the anti-administration lobbying effort.